Aging Oppenheimer

by Luisa Abel and by Jaime Leigh McIntosh

Aging of Cillian Murphy (J. Robert Oppenheimer)


by Luisa Abel | Department Head of Make-up and Prosthetics  

Young Oppenheimer

Being asked to work on one of Christopher Nolan’s films is always wonderful, then to find out it would be Oppenheimer raised the level of excitement and challenge. We were all aware that telling a story spanning four decades, with historic and iconic figures, on 70mm IMAX, meant the design and execution of our work had to be seamless to allow the audience to journey into this world. 

I knew that filming in multiple distant locations meant that significant prep and testing were needed before principal photography began. Designing the overall look, including the sculpting and preparing all the prosthetics for the run of the film, needed to start immediately. It was essential to work collaboratively with director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, Jaime Leigh McIntosh as the Department Head Hair, and Ellen Mirojnick, our costume designer. Working with the talented Jason Hamer at Hamer FX was crucial to get all the prosthetic pieces designed and sculpted. His open collaboration, dedication and attention to every detail was the perfect fit. 

We were able to do a digital rendition of all the final character agings, discussing what techniques and applications would be used, including silicone and transfer prosthetics. This also allowed me the ability to test, review and revise the designs, making sure the progressive aging and period changes worked in unison with what we had established, all while overseeing all the actors’ looks at our many filming locations. At the same time, Jason Hamer oversaw all the work done at Hamer FX in LA. 

For the planning of the actors’ age progression, it was important to recognize there were varying time spans when the actors would appear. To create an effective continuity outline for this meant that contrary to usual linear-scene-number breakdowns, the breakdown for each actor was done primarily by age. This kept the non-consecutive scenes of the same timeline together. 

Our main team included key make-up Jamie Hess; prosthetics Jason Hamer and Hiro Yada,  supported by the rest of their terrific team. Lead application artists Jamie Kelman, Kerrin Jackson, Jamie Hess and myself. Also, Todd Kleitsch when we filmed in NJ. Make-up artists Becky Cotton, Leslie Devlin. 

For Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer’s appearance runs from the 1920s to the 1960s for his later years. Cillian Murphy as young Oppenheimer needed to look his most youthful. Knowing that I’d be taking advantage of his amazing natural cheek bone structure for his later years (enhanced by his stunning weight loss), I had plumpers made to bring a youthful fullness for this early look. Several revisions were made to ensure we got the added fullness and natural appearance needed. Highlight and shadow were also used to maximize this look. 

Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer

A natural make-up also neutralized a portion of Cillian’s freckles, because Oppenheimer himself didn’t have them. This had to be done with a very light hand and then treated almost as a prosthetic in adding the blood tones back on top to ensure a natural look. His brows were darkened as well. 

For 1930s and 1940s look, the plumpers were removed to allow us to use Cillian’s natural bone structure. The Los Alamos look transitioned him into his healthiest look. I added color and natural flush to see Oppenheimer at his happiest moments. 

For the older looks in 1950s and 1960, I decided that my aging stipple mix with a mattifying agent purposely made for the IMAX format would work well for these aging stages. Then, carefully adding depth and highlight with light washes of color and an encapsulated use of an aging material would enhance the aging lines. We had used a similar method for the aging work on Interstellar, so I adapted that for Oppenheimer.

I also added minute details like nicotine stains on his fingertips from his smoking habit. These are the details that the 70mm IMAX format will undoubtedly pick up. As Kitty Oppenheimer, Emily Blunt had an equally expansive and detailed transition from youth, the progression through adulthood and lastly, the gradual impact of alcoholism. Because Emily’s face is very expressive, it was important to test which pieces would help or hinder us in her aging looks. The intention in design is to allow complete expression, comfort for the performer and a seamless natural look. 

he aging mix works differently on each face and in areas where the face moves a lot. So, after testing various options for the middle aging look for Kitty, including transfer pieces, I chose to use double specific pulls to get her outer eye wrinkles. At other points in her later aging, we used Pros Aide transfer pieces, silicone pieces and sealing them with the aging mix. The make-ups were completed with light foundation, very subtle character work and a period-appropriate palette. 

For Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, I realized at our first meeting that Robert looks a lot younger and would need aging considerably to play Strauss using the subtle aging technique to transform him. He would need to appear seamlessly in the midst of actors who were actually of that age. As this technique moves well and molds with the actor’s face, Robert’s expressions and neck movement appear natural. 

Kerrin Jackson (center) and Luisa Abel aging Cillian Murphy

My general approach to all the principal cast who require aging is to look for any detail I can enhance, shift, or minimize to show that progression. An example of this was the facial hair for Matt Damon’s portrayal of Leslie Groves and Tom Conti as Albert Einstein. The black-and-white portions of the film shifted my design approach, allowing the contrasts to come through for those sequences. We also made sure that all the aging techniques and looks worked for this format and maintained their continuity. 

For Gary Oldman as Harry Truman and the aging looks for the film’s final ceremony scene, both Jason Hamer and Hiro Yada were able to come and practically do make-ups with the team of artists. We had 11 principal cast aging make-ups that day. I was lucky enough to get some of our best make-up artists together, working as a team. Preparing for this meant getting together for a design and concept meeting, then a sculpt/prosthetic design and aging meeting, a color and character meeting, and then the final day where we all worked in pods to achieve these looks. 

In the final stage for aging, I felt it was crucial that after all the actors were aged, they should appear as a cohesive group; their color tones working together. It’s challenging when actors in aging make-up must blend seamlessly into a room full of people not wearing aging make-up or prosthetics; who were of that actual age. 

As there was so much to the story for Oppenheimer, my department was able to do the full spectrum for work: beauty, period make-ups, character, facial hair, bald caps, prosthetic and aging. It was a huge undertaking and I was thrilled with the results, due to our team’s talent and dedication. •


by Jaime Leigh McIntosh | Department Head Hair

A project where all the cast and crew are experiencing a “pinch me” moment, being so thrilled to work on a Christopher Nolan film, Oppenheimer made for a fantastic work environment, and one in which you knew everyone was going to be giving it everything.

Director Christopher Nolan, Luisa Abel (center), and Jaime Leigh McIntosh (right) consult with Tom Conti, who portrays Albert Einstein

Luckily for me, I was collaborating with Department Head of Make-up and Prosthetics Luisa Abel, who has done many Nolan IMAX films and was able to guide me. We wanted the team to honor Nolan’s commitment to historical accuracy surrounding J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. The team also would need to understand how Nolan likes to run his set, which was something I was excited about, but knew wouldn’t be suited for everyone: no phones and no monitors. My team embraced this structured environment and quickly adapted. 

The first hair design discussions with Nolan were on how best to hit the hair style/length marks with J. Robert Oppenheimer himself, showing the passage of time without the use of multiple wigs. Once we worked out our plan for Oppie, we then worked on how to do that with all our other characters spanning the years. 

Nolan wanted to avoid using wigs, so for graying hair, we tested and used multiple techniques to have characters slowly gray over time. All colors and techniques didn’t work on every head of hair, so each cast member had his or her own recipe. 

We started J. Robert Oppenheimer with a mop of curly hair. Cillian Murphy had grown his hair to a length we were able to perm; the perm gave us a natural feel and also took less time in the chair. We airbrushed the hair to cover natural grays, giving an all-over brunette look so that it would wash out and we could use Cillian’s own graying hair, build on it, add more gray or airbrush darker to cover when needed. 

Emily Blunt

TOnce we wrapped the 1920s, it was time for Cillian to get the shortest haircut. The next stage in Oppie’s story was keeping the darker coloring but using a toupee-style hairpiece through the top, still using Cillian’s own hair line and blending that up into the piece. The guidance from Nolan was that “it should be such a subtle difference between this stage and the next shorter one, that you often question why you even bother applying it.” 

From there, we gradually let more of Cillian’s own grays come through around the temples and then the hairpiece comes off and we see Oppie with his shortest style. As time passes, grayer is added to Cillian’s own until we reach 1963, the oldest age of many of the characters. For this, we used Cillian’s own sides and back, painted heavily with gray. Make-up applied a silicon bald pate through the top and we had a whitish gray, thinner top hairpiece hand-crafted by wigmaker Rob Pickens. Because we knew this piece would only be used twice, Rob used an uncoated front lace, which meant it was incredibly fine but also very delicate. We wanted it to be undetectable on the IMAX screen. 

Emily Blunt aged

Emily Blunt, portraying Kitty Oppenheimer, arrived with beautiful, blonde, below-shoulder-length hair. We cut Emily’s hair and acclaimed colorist Brock Billings colored it darker, but not as dark as the actual Kitty’s hair. We landed on a beautiful light brown, with the styling kept simplistic without fuss, allowing movement and life to show through. As Kitty ages, we decided against any visible graying, but instead brought up the length, using a fall through the back and spraying the hair with a colored spray to give the effect of color build-up; women block-coloring their hair to keep gray covered was common at the time. This also gave the hair a dullness and harshness that worked well.

Robert Downey Jr., portraying Lewis Strauss, was ready for anything. So, we changed his front hairline, bringing it back, thinning out the top of his hair, leaving him with one-third of the amount of hair he naturally has. We bleached the hair through the top to lighten it. This gave us more control coloring it with a mixture of airbrushing and painting, achieving a darker gray earlier in his story and a white gray at the end. We styled it differently to show the passage of time, fluffy side parting evolving to slicked back. 

We had key hair stylist Ahou Mofid from start to finish, the best right hand an HOD could ask for. We struck gold in New Mexico with background hair supervisor Jennifer Jane smashing out many heads of background hair. Hair stylists Danielle Vigil, with her unmatched barbering skills and Heidi Baca, with her can-do attitude, were invaluable.

In New Jersey, crowd hair coordinator JT Franchuk had every background talent ready to roll. Home in LA, background hair stylists Brittany Lester and Bia Iftikhar kept busy with pre-cuts for background fittings; background hair supervisor Celeste Gonzales wrangled crowds and hired our Local 706 stylists. In the trailer to our right, we had hair stylist Meghan Heaney, with unwavering skill and support, and to our left, hair stylist Lydia Fantini, always setting her bar high. These artists and many more are why we were able to accomplish the final results seen on screen. Thank you! •